Do You Believe in Magic?

Posted: June 21, 2007 by Kendricke in Everquest 2, General Game Concepts, Out of Character

Presto: Sheesh Eric, enough with the spit and polish, huh?
Eric: You can never have too much polish, Presto.
[mumbling to himself]
Eric: Cause I ran outta spit an hour ago.

-“Dungeons and Dragons”, CBS 1983 

Magic. 

Magicks. Power.  Wizardry.  Conjuration.  Legedermain.  Enchantment.  Thamaturgy.  Alchemy.  Witchcraft.  Wonder.  Spellcasting. 

There’s a lot of words that come to mind when you think of “magic”.  Chances are that most of these words come to you by way of stories or movies or games you played growing up, which stuck with you through today. 

Perhaps it was Merlin who first kindled the flame.  What about Gandalf and Bilbo?  Mayhaps even Mickey Mouse in Fantasia did it.  It could have even been Presto.   Ah, now that last name conjure up a time in my own youth that remains, itself, magical. 

Throughout the 1980’s, fantasy based cartoons and animated series continued to pop up from time to time feeding hungry imaginations of an entire generation of children who were brought up on Reaganomics and Ollie North.  Whether it was the Gummi Bears, Smurfs, The Visionaries, or Dungeons and Dragons, I was hooked.  Saturday mornings, and later after school with re-runs, I was glued to our family’s massive 21 inch console TV.

When the first Fox affiliate started to broadcast on WXTX, I was calling in constantly to try to win a new Visionary action figure.  Eventually, I did..and my brother and I launched into a new collection of holographically enhanced magical stories in our backyard. 

To a child of the 80’s, a great many of these stories were my first introductions to the idea of fantastic magical powers.  Forget about rabbits in hats, I wanted to summon animal totems or use a cloak of invisibility.  These were truly magical abilities that lead to teen years rolling 10 sided dice and an adulthood wrapped around online gaming.

So, why do games seem to feel less magical as I get older – not less. 

To be fair, it could be me.  I’m not getting any younger, and the tempation to talk about “those darn kids” down the street grows greater with every passing day.  It’s hard to forget your first loves, and for me, those Saturday mornings simply can’t be replicated.

However, I think it’s more than that. 

When I first started playing Everquest, I was late to the party.  Luclin had just released and I was still getting the hang of Orc 1 in East Commons while most players were figuring out Grieg’s End.  But there was one lesson I learned early and never forgot:  magic mattered.

I believe the lesson came in the form of an angry willowisp, which promptly trounced my level 9 cleric in no time flat…while I couldn’t touch the thing.  Come to find out, my little rusty hammer wasn’t listed as “magic” and wisps, come to find out, were immune to mundane damage.  No magic – no lightstone. 

I think there’s something to be said about fantasy settings where magic is both rare and powerful (or even commonplace and powerful, really).  Specifically, I’m talking about magic items.  Whether it was the magic potions of the Gummi Bears, the magic staffs or totems of the Visionnaries, or the various magic items of the kids stuck in the Realm from the Dungeons and Dragons show, the items struck awe and wonder into me every Saturday morning growing up.

What group of sword and sorcery inspired children didn’t dream about what it would be like to have some version of Gandalf’s staff, or the one ring, or Eric’s shield, or Hank’s bow.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but my magic smurfberry potions tasted suspiciously like Welch’s concentrated grape juice and my magical totem looked an awful lot like a magic marker drawing of an owl on lined schoolpaper taped to a broomstick. 

So, what’s my point after all this…besides making myself feel old? 

I want magic items to feel…magical.  Is that such an odd request?

Oh sure, I want the magic items to have graphics which immediately set them apart, preferably with runic writing and particle effects.  I’d prefer such items to not have their graphics overused where possible, but I understand the constraints that are often placed on software design (as opposed to just game design).

No, I’m really looking for something a bit deeper.

How many magic items in the game you play actually come with a description of the item – even just a paragraph or two?  Even the named items rarely come with this little extra bit of fluff.  With Echoes of Faydwer, we started to see more items with this extra care built in, but even so, it’s relatively rare to see it.

I want magical items to feel truly magical, as if otherworldly.  A magic staff might look like a regular old knotted walking stick, and if you thwack someone over the head with it, it very well might feel just like a regular old knotted walking stick.  However, smack a creature with a magical presense (astral, aura, metaphysical, etc.) and lightsaber sparks fly out and the damage increases dramatically. 

Wait, what was that, Kendricke?  You want multiple damage systems?  That’s just crazy talk!

Is it?  Is it crazy?  Or is it just so sane that it looks crazy?!!

Ok, in all seriousness, I want multiple damage systems.  I think back to playing Shadowrun around the dinner table and realizing that all the hardware in the world wasn’t going to save my tricked out street samurai from a fireball cast from a corp battle mage.  However, the combat mage we hired for that run was able to outright negate the damage through his own magical powers.

It’s a crazy, mixed up world we’re living in where mages become better tanks than warriors who are wearing small mountains of steel on their shoulders, but it makes perfect sense once you shift your idea of what “magic” really is.

Is magic some mystical energy (like the Force, or auras, or chakras, or what have you)?  If so, would it make sense that all the muscles and padding and spikes and steel plates in the world wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans against a wizard who knew what she was doing?    I’d say yes.

I’d love to see a game with magic used in a different way.  Imagine shifting vision to see magic.  Imagine creatures which were easier to kill in one form or another?  Imagine different classes protecting us in different ways from different types of damage (a step beyond mere resistances).  Imagine mages tanking. 

Is it really such a difficult concept?  It isn’t, really…if you believe in magic, that is.

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Comments
  1. I totally agree. Magic has become mundane and commonplace in our games, and magic has also become this concept that everyone “knows.” You should have seen all the posts in the LoTRO forums when it launched about people who were angry that their “caster” couldn’t just conjure up fire with a thought.

    Magic isn’t the metric system. There’s no way “one way” to do it right. I think part of the problem is that D&D style magic has become so pervasive in our gaming, TV/movie entertainment, and fiction culture that people don’t really question it or think outside the box anymore. In the 80’s, it was still novel. D&D was youngish, they didn’t have all these fancy RPG videogames to show youngsters about magic, and there was a lot of room for exploration and different takes on it. Shadowrun, for example.

    Right now, you have one baseline standard for “magic” (in popular culture at least) and everyone understands how it works. Waggle finger, zap bad guys. Sabrina the Teenage witch, Rand Al’Thor, WoW’s Mage, and Buffy’s Willow all have the same powers, more or less. Boring.

  2. I know I kind of got off the point of your post and went on a rant… for the record, I also think damage systems like the kind you’re describing would be awesome.

  3. Tbiggs says:

    heh. Check out Asheron’s call…. they have weapons that do multiple damage types..
    You might find it a tad basic though, and there’s no clerics per say…
    -B-

  4. Aaron says:

    I’m rarely impressed anymore by magic that falls into dry categories like missile, DoT, buff, debuff, etc. Maybe if the classic fireball actually set the NPC aflame, I’d get excited. But I’d generally prefer a small set of fascinating abilities to a large set of the same ol’ same old.

    A large part of the problem seems to be the affectual equivalence of one spell to another spell or ability. Smack the orc with a sword or a fireball, the effect is the same. Maybe the game distinguishes between slashing vulnerability and fire vulnerability in its calculations, but that doesn’t make one attack feel different from the other unless the enemy’s protection is so good that the player is forced (not merely encouraged) to alter tactics. Stuff like that can end up being a waste of assets. What matters most is the feeling the player gets, the thrill of the moment.

    Separating damage tables isn’t helpful unless the differences aren’t just under the hood. The differences that actually matter are those that are visually apparent (the enemy staring wide-eyed and erect when stunned, shivering when cold, screaming when on fire, etc.) or, even better, produce events (the enemy runs away, his weapon is disintegrated, he sinks into quicksand, the player must switch weapons, etc.).

    As Kirk pointed out the other day on my site, one of the traits that leads Blizzard to success in so many of their games is that they understand the difference between making each class/army/unit effective and making each one uniquely compelling. In the new Starcraft, units have abilities that do more than simply apply the same damage in a different way, or act as a plain opposite and counterbalance to an enemy ability. That’s smart design.

    Granted, Blizzard’s previous successes have placed that company in a position to prolong production. But, surely, companies with fewer resources can at least throw some truly imaginative abilities in with the usual fare. Producers should think in terms of cost-to-benefit, rather than cost alone (though cost alone matters also, of course). Quality matters.

    Anyway, some examples of magic that would actually *feel* compelling:
    — The player causes lightning to strike a nearby tree, and the tree falls toward the closest enemy. The tree may even remain broken for [x] amount of game-time, so the world bears the mark of the encounter.
    — The player causes dirt/sand to liquify or shrubs/vines to tangle, barring his wake and securing his escape (it’s really too bad players don’t have to run away more often in these games, in my opinion).
    — The player causes a weapon to become hot, after which a typical enemy would drop it.
    — The player summons a ghost and sends it flying toward the enemy. When the spectre hits, the enemy faints or is paralyzed from shock (unless it has strong willpower).

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